The forest-dweller stage of life

In her amazing article on aging gracefully – which also explores the subtle forms of resistance to seeing the truth of aging – Deborah Willoughby explains the Four Stages of Life according to the yoga tradition.

In brief, they are:

  • Student
  • Householder
  • Forest-dweller
  • Renunciate

Deborah goes on to explicate these stages in further detail:

“The yoga tradition offers a completely different script, one rich with possibility. In this version, the play of life unfolds in a graceful arc from birth to death, becoming more nuanced and rewarding as it moves toward the denouement—perfect fulfillment, not “mere oblivion.” Here we play four distinct roles as the drama of life unfolds: student, householder, forest dweller, and renunciate.

The first two are self-explanatory and accord well with our modern view. During the student years—childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood—our primary task is acquiring the knowledge and skills we will need to make our way in the world. We draw on these attainments when we become householders, immersing ourselves in the rush and roar of life as we go about earning a living, raising a family, and doing our civic duty.

But here the resemblance ends. In our modern script, the third act—retirement—defines us in terms of what we’ve left behind instead of what lies ahead. Up through our late 50s and into our 60s, our energy has been mainly focused on tangible achievements: earning a degree, building a career, raising children, acquiring property, perhaps making a name for ourselves. Now, as these familiar identities and activities fall away, we find ourselves without a clear, purposeful direction.”

Deborah then zooms in on her own personal resistance to entering the Forest-dweller stage – which manifested as a persistent detaching retina.  Her refusal to slow down her pace as Editor of Yoga International magazine impeded her full recovery after the first episode and laser surgery.

Quickly returning to a frenzied pace, Deborah’s retina detached again.  Not just once or twice.  Four times altogether.  This forced an extended state of convalescence. The physical ordeal and total collapse took three months, but Deborah’s recovery and internal shift to the forest-dweller stage took much longer.

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